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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – The first time Henrik Stenson saw Chambers Bay, he walked the course without playing it. The Swede did just fine with clubs in his hand Thursday in a rousing start to the U.S. Open.
Stenson birdied three of his last four holes for a 5-under 65, his lowest score in the U.S. Open, to share the lead with Dustin Johnson among the early starters.
Johnson was flawless until a bogey on his final hole, the par-3 ninth, that showed how wild this course can play. He pulled a 6-iron long, and then hit a chip that looked like it was running fast off the green until it made a hard left turn. He missed the 15-foot par putt.
Stenson and Johnson had a one-shot lead over Patrick Reed.
Masters champion Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods were among those playing in the afternoon. Woods opened with three bogeys in four holes, already struggling.
The morning groups were happy to get the first date with Chambers Bay out of the way.
"One day out of four done, and we're right there with where we want to be," Stenson said. "It's still a long journey until Sunday afternoon."
It's a long journey every round at Chambers Bay, the mystery course built on a former sand-and-gravel pit with 200 feet of elevation from the highest point to the train tracks that run along Puget Sound.
The course was always going to be the star in the opening round because no one knew what to expect. The USGA allowed for a relatively gentle setup, and the overcast sky and lack of wind certainly helped.
Phil Mickelson showed early that he might be in the mix for another shot — or more heartache — in the only major he has never won. He was among the early leaders until back-to-back bogeys in the middle of the back nine for a 69.
"I thought there was nothing hokey or crazy with any pin positions or how it played," Mickelson said. "I thought it was difficult. I think the biggest challenge is that the green speeds are different from green to green. That's going to wreak havoc on our touch."
Rory McIlroy failed to take advantage of the early start. The world's No. 1 player hit the ball beautifully for most of the day and couldn't make a putt. He wound up with a 72.
Stenson was among those who were skeptical about Chambers Bay, which opened only eight years ago. Slowed by a stomach virus in the spring, he flew to Seattle on his way to the Match Play Championship and decided to walk the course to get a feel for how it played. It is faster now, and much firmer, and he thrived on it.
So did Johnson, no stranger to great starts in majors.
Johnson lost a chance to win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach five years ago with an 82 in the final round. He missed out on a playoff at the PGA Championship that same year by grounding his club without realizing he was in a bunker at Whistling Straits. And his challenge at the British Open in 2011 was derailed by a 2-iron that went out-of-bounds on the 14th hole.
But coming off a six-month break to get his life in order, Johnson is as imposing as ever. He likes the look of a big course where he can smash his way around it, and hitting it straight always helps.
He surged into the lead with three birdies in a four-hole stretch, only to make bogey on his final hole. It didn't bother him. Nothing does.
"I really felt like I swung it well and hit a lot of quality iron shots," Johnson said. "So the confidence is definitely there. I feel really good about where I'm at going into tomorrow."